On a knife-edge in Sweden

It’s a while since we looked at Sweden, but long-term readers may remember the last election there, in September 2018. Centre-right plus far right finished on 154 seats; centre-left plus far left had 144. The balance between them was held by two centrist parties: the Centre Party (31 seats) and the Liberals (20).

Both had been part of an alliance with the centre-right (and had been in its coalition government from 2006 to 2014), but they were unwilling to support a government that would depend on the votes of the far-right Sweden Democrats. After several months of indecision they eventually reached agreement to support a centre-left government.

So Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven returned as prime minister, in coalition with the Greens, with the formal support of Centre and Liberals and the tacit support of the far-left Left party. Just over a year later the pandemic hit, and Löfven and his government became unlikely heroes for “libertarians” and Covid-denialists around the world for their laissez-faire approach to quarantine restrictions, leaving Sweden less subject to lockdowns and other restrictions than most affected countries.

The Swedish approach wasn’t a great success: the country’s death rate climbed well above those of its neighbors, although it was still relatively modest compared to Britain and most of southern Europe. When the second wave arrived late last year, the government introduced restrictions comparable to those of other countries, and pundits on both sides mostly stopped talking about the Swedish model.

As in most places, the government’s popularity rose in the early months of the crisis, but for the last year or so it has generally been on a downward trajectory. When the crisis came, however, it had nothing to do with Covid. Instead, Löfven is fighting for his political survival because of a dispute over rent control.

When they agreed to support the government, one of the measures the Centre and Liberals demanded in return was a winding back of some of Sweden’s system of rent control – a system that is presumably as economically destructive as it has been wherever else it’s been tried. Last month Löfven tried to make good on the promise, but this was a red line for the Left.

It moved a vote of no confidence, and on 21 June the government was defeated 181-109, with the Left and the opposition voting against it and the two centrist parties abstaining. It’s said to be the first time a Swedish government has ever lost an explicit no-confidence vote. The option of an early election was uninviting, so on Monday Löfven announced his resignation, hoping to be able to win majority support for a restructured government.

In the meantime, the Centre had decided not to insist on its position on rent control, removing that obstacle. The Liberals, however, refused to be cajoled back, and have gone over to the centre-right opposition – apparently deciding, at least for the moment, that they can live with some implicit co-operation with the far right.

The Speaker (who exercises the power of appointment that in most parliamentary systems belongs to the head of state) invited Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the main centre-right party, the Moderates, to try to form a government. With the backing of the Christian Democrats, the Sweden Democrats and the Liberals he should have 173 votes, two short of a majority.

The combination of Social Democrats, Greens, Centre and Left has one more, 174, and there are two independents: one former Liberal and one formerly from the Left. In addition, one of the Centre’s MPs voted against Löfven last time and has threatened to do so again. So it remains uncertain whether either of the leaders (and if so, which one) will be able to win a vote in parliament.

A maximum of four attempts to install a new government are allowed before an early election must be called. If the polls are right, that would probably produce a right-wing majority, with both the Liberals and Greens at risk of falling below the 4% threshold (for reasons no-one seems able to explain, Sweden is an exception to the current Greens’ surge in Europe).

But the election is not otherwise due until late next year, so if Löfven can make it across the line this time he has at least the chance of turning things around.

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